Qandahar is a lot to take in on a short trip. I had forgotten how much cleaner and wider the streets are than in Kabul. And that the city comes to life in the evening for those two magical hours before the onset of darkness. New development is visible everywhere and statistically trends are headed up from 8 months ago inside the city.
Yet the mood is grim. People talk about corruption that stretches from petty police bribes to drug dealing at the highest levels of provincial Government. While people remain solidly anti-insurgency, a deep fissure has appeared here between the people and government that was a mere crack in 2005.
The logical link between enabling corrupt warlords and undermining our own counter-insurgency efforts is crucial to understand. A corrupt government does not make people pro-insurgency. It simply means people no longer have a dog in the fight. Between a corrupt government (who demand payoffs) or the Taliban and other anti-government forces (who offer handouts), you follow the path of least resistance and try to stay out of the way. MORE
And then there is the rising antipathy towards international forces, driven by almost daily reports of civilian casualties and busting into the privacy of homes. Every day I was there ended with news reports of a new attack somewhere in the region. And the men cannot say enough about the emasculating dishonor of having their homes invaded, including the private areas for women. I kept hearing this eerie mantra -– international forces are winning the battle but losing the hearts and minds (a phrase that has entered local lexicon). Fair or not -– and the civilian casualty issue is complicated –- the PR battle is not going well.
My personal sense is that hearts and minds remain solidly up for grabs, but the fight for them is intensifying. Let me resort to the dubious tactic of competing anecdotes to suggest the state of play.
The first was an evening spent with four Afghan men in their mid-20s, all employed with various levels of education. The early rounds of the conversation began with the usual comments, including great praise for the job US troops did post-Taliban and some critiques of the backsliding under Canadian forces. They too lambasted the government for its corruption and international forces for civilian casualties and house invasions, but remained largely in favor of a strong US and ISAF troop presence.
But an hour into the conversation, as trust built (and most dropped their assumption that I was CIA), the criticisms of international forces became increasingly intense. Eventually I asked each what he would do if made President of Afghanistan, a frequent question of mine meant to move from the deluge of critiques to some constructive solutions. After a few answers focusing on crushing the insurgency by putting a clean and competent government in place, this guy I shall call Abdul said, “The first thing I would do is kick out every single foreign troop. Every one one of them. I would not ask them to leave. I would order them out. Starting with the Americans. Now.” Within minutes, the entire group was eagerly on board with the agenda, even those who earlier in the conversation had advocated for a US troop surge.
About this time, we started to hear shots fired, which soon moved to within a block of us in either direction (no one but me seemed phased). Amidst pops and flares, they then launched into several of the popular conspiracy theories -– OBL and MO are on the US payroll -– they need a villain, because the movie must end when the villain dies (clearly they have not seen the sequel-heavy slate of summer movies); why would a country fight the insurgency but back Pakistan’s government that is funding them unless they want this to continue? Why would a country talk about bringing democracy and then put in power a collection of the most corrupt thugs and drug dealers from our past? I had heard these arguments before, but not with this vitriol. These guys were anti-Taliban and anti-insurgency, but their hearts and minds are swiftly shifting to being anti-government and anti-international troops as well.
But that is only part of the story of Kandahar.
Scene II. I went the next morning to meet with the Kandahar ulema – the council of religious leaders who have typically been the most respected body in the region, if not the country. They generally have been a traditional but relatively moderate, educated, group of 50-80 men who set the moral and cultural norms for the community. When the Taliban first moved in from Pakistan in 1994, they targeted the ulema first because they knew these guys had far greater religious legitimacy than they (and because the ulema rejected their Islamist ideology). When the Taliban began its new insurgency, with the new tactic of suicide bombings never before used in Afghanistan, some of their most dramatic early targets were the ulema. They killed two successive ulema chiefs, who remain eulogized on billboards around the city. The reason for targeting the ulema was that they were the most legitimate voice endorsing the new government and international project.
I was brought through a simple building into a small room crammed with 30 or so of these religious leaders who were sitting in front of an old video camera presenting a sermon of sorts. They were recording a video message to the people of Kandahar to be circulated through the media. Their messages – (1) suicide bombings are a violation of Islamic law, (2) growing, trading or using poppy is a violation of Islamic law, and (3) now is a time for good muslims in Kandahar to support the Government of Afghanistan and offer no safe haven for insurgents. Here were the most respected (albeit far from the most politically powerful) leaders in the region offering a resounding argument against the insurgency and its tactics.
The battle for the South – both military and political – is winnable and we have great allies in that effort. But if anyone doubts that accountability and good governance lie at the heart of the security threat, I beg them to find a way to get out amongst people in Kandahar for a single day and get beyond that set of initial responses.